During the holiday season of 1991, the Sega Genesis was already two years old. Jumpstarting the 16-bit era, its sales still paled in comparison to the Nintendo Entertainment System, and with the Super Nintendo finally coming out in the United States, it might have been a safe bet to think Nintendo would continue its dominance in the market. But SEGA had an ace up their sleeve, something that could directly compete with Super Mario World – Sonic the Hedgehog. Suddenly, that safe bet was called into question. Come January ‘92, SEGA had done the impossible – market share in the U.S. for the home console market was split down the middle, with SEGA just ever so slightly having the edge.
Aggressive marketing, mall tours, a character design that instantly encapsulated everything that was hip and cool in the new decade. There was no doubt “Sonic Mania” was just beginning. It’s easy to look back and go “of course Sonic would succeed.” But what was it like to have lived in that moment? Not even as a kid who got a Genesis for Christmas, but as someone who picked up Sonic the moment it came out? Imagine being one of the SEGA faithful, having already bought a Sega Genesis, playing Thunder Force II and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker late into the night. Waiting impatiently for that one game that would prove without a doubt the system was here to stay.
Imagine being one of the first to experience Sonic the Hedgehog. Walking into an Electronics Boutique, and seeing Sonic’s self-assured smirk on the shelves. Finger pointed, a rendition of the Green Hill Zone teasing the obstacles that would block their way to saving South Island. Did they know they were buying a piece of history as the clerk rung them up? Or was it not until they went home, sliding that cart into their Genesis, flipping the switch, and running through that first checkered loop? So filled with excitement, they just needed to tell someone about how great this new game was. Rushing to their computer, firing up that blistering 14.4 kbps modem, sharing with the world what they had experienced. No doubt, June 11th, 1991 became a date they would not soon forget.
Hold on a second. June 11th?
Long before the first sketch of Sonic was drawn by Ohshima, SEGA had their sights on becoming a major player in the home console market. In Japan, the SG-1000 was launched the same day as the Famicom, SEGA hoping they could leverage their success in the arcade by making a home console that everyone across the country would want. Instead, Nintendo became the clear winner, a success that continued in the United States with the launch of the NES. By the late 80’s, if one were to log onto Usenet and see what people were saying in rec.games.video, Nintendo and its library dominated the conversation. Sure, there was the occasional mention of SEGA as a brand – someone asking if investing in a Master System was worth it, or talking up the joys of Space Harrier on the Amiga. But in a world where GameFAQs was years away from hosting its first walkthrough, people asked how to beat Zelda II, Castlevania II, and Super Mario Bros. 2. SEGA-focused conversation was sparse, one poster named Sandy wondering if there were any Master System owners out there in net-land.
Aside from one helpful response to Sandy, you never would have guessed the Sega Genesis was about to be released in the west. Coverage on the system and what it was doing over in Japan would pop up in various game magazines, but it took a week and a half after it was released stateside before anyone wrote a personal review on Usenet. The review was resoundingly positive, covering nearly every game available at launch with the sole exception of Tommy Lasorda Baseball. Maybe they weren’t a big sports game fan? Who knows. Reading the review, one thing is certainly clear. Bernie knew that the Genesis was going to do what the Nintendidn’t.
Unfortunately, not everyone had the same enthusiasm for the system. When people compared the console to its peers, often it was in the same breath as the Turbografx-16 or the Amiga home computer, not Nintendo. There were people who didn’t want to invest in SEGA because they felt burned from their marketing with the Master System. There were people who didn’t understand why anyone would want to get a new “super” video game system, since no real games were being made on any expensive platform (true gaming experiences could only happen on the Game Boy and Atari Lynx, you see)! And those who were early adopters of the system that promised “high definition graphics”? They weren’t afraid to complain, be it the lack of full color manuals or simply the lack of new titles altogether. There was no way Andrew could have known, while wondering about the status of SEGA’s game library, that something special had just been announced.
On June 7th, 1990, the 29th annual Tokyo Toy Show opened its doors to the public. Among the many exhibits in the halls of the newly built Makuhari Messe convention center, SEGA proudly showed off its new color handheld, the Game Gear. Not that far away, a sea of CRT televisions were showing off a number of new games for its 16-bit console. Near a woman who likely kept talking about the wonders of SEGA from open to close, anyone who happened to walk past got their first look at Sonic the Hedgehog. If this happened today, there would be seventeen Twitter videos within a matter of seconds showing off every game in that room. Back then, the only way you were capturing footage is if you were lugging around a camcorder, and you certainly weren’t uploading that to the Internet anytime soon.
Unless you lived in Japan, the announcement of Sonic the Hedgehog would have passed you by, and likely still did even if you lived in Tokyo. Even with the Internet, news could travel slow. The first mention of Sonic on the Internet wouldn’t come until two months after the ‘90 Tokyo Toy Show, a user by the name of Sir Han transcribing a list of upcoming Mega Drive titles featured in the latest issues of Beep! MegaDrive and Mega Drive Fan. Offering commentary, they described the game as “cartoony action – this is what might be Sega’s Mario and Bonk. Move away Alex! Cute and cuddly Sonic the Hedgehog is here!” No one replied, not even to ask what the heck a hedgehog was. To be fair, it wasn’t unusual for a Usenet post to not get a response. Oftentimes, discourse was done in private over e-mail, people trying to practice proper netiquette and not flood someone’s newsfeed. It was a far more innocent time.
If you lived in the states at the time, the only place you’d be able to catch a glimpse of Sonic was getting the latest issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly. They did claim, after all, to be the only US magazine covering the event. The person doing the small write-up seemed confused by the “hedgehog connection,” moving on to focus on more pressing matters. The Game Gear was hands on at the show, anyone able to stand and play a round of Columns. There was an upcoming Strider port for the Mega Drive that looked to be a system seller, but most importantly, the Super Famicom had been given a release window. Sonic was news, but how much was there to say about an “unusual video game super hero” that more than likely wasn’t even playable?
Yet it was enough to catch someone’s attention. Three issues later, with a cover dominated by Super Mario World, a letter by Colin Rey would dare ask the question “Can you run more on this great game?” Sure enough, they did, just dropping another screenshot of the demo right there on the letters page. In the modern world of announcements for announcements, its hard to believe there was a time when anything new would just be casually dropped like that. No fanfare, no nothin’.
Back on Usenet, Sir Han made another post listing upcoming SEGA titles. This time, someone finally responded.
I don’t know if I’d call Space Harrier SEGA’s answer to Mario, but they did have a point. If you were all in on SEGA, the company already had plenty of games to go up against Nintendo’s library. Who needed Zelda when you had Phantasy Star II? But it was impossible to admit that SEGA was faring well against their best known competition. Well, unless you lived in Europe, but that’s another story entirely.
Sonic wouldn’t get any major news coverage until early 1991, thanks to the game’s appearance at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Until this point, Sega of America was incredibly hesitant to show off the game, opting to slowly build a marketing strategy that would go into full effect later that year. Regardless, the hype for SEGA’s newest mascot had started, with articles appearing in every major U.S. and UK gaming mags. EGM went as far to declare Sonic the best game at the show.
For the average trade show attendant, Sonic proved to be just as dazzling. Even those who were unenthused by Sega of America’s other games on display couldn’t help but admit Sonic the Hedgehog was an exception, standing out among the space shooters and sport titles that had become the hallmark of the Genesis’ catalogue.
It wasn’t long before Sonic went from being barely noted in a gaming mag to becoming a proper cover story. EGM continued to write about Sonic, the character’s face adorned newsstands, and those who had never heard of a SEGA (or a hedgehog) were suddenly getting excited. It was clear the developers were putting their all into this one title, but was it enough to actually compete against Super Mario World?
Well, we know what history has told us. We’ve heard Al Nilsen regale us with how Sonic was presented at Summer CES 1991. But what about someone who was actually there? A potential consumer, just interested in the future of gaming? On June 10th, 1991, Eric G. gave his thoughts on both Super Mario World and Sonic the Hedgehog.
Sega of America was not afraid to compare their newest star with the titan of gaming. The only question left to answer was when the game would become available to buy.
The first report of Sonic being on sale was posted June 11th, 1991, found just outside of San Jose, California. Over the next week, people living in Washington state, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and the D.C. area were able to locate copies of the game. By the 18th, it was getting hard to come across, with one store forced to make a waiting list 32 people long.
Yes, these are anecdotes posted by people of the era. Was Sonic actually sold out in western Washington? That’s hard to say. However, the fact there are multiple people in multiple states talking about getting the game? This wasn’t some rash case of breaking street date across the country. Simply put, Sonic the Hedgehog wasn’t actually released on the 23rd of June. It was released…well. Whenever.
“Sonic 2sday” was a big deal, not just because it was the sequel to SEGA’s biggest game to date. When talking about the marketing and release of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Tom Kalinske and Al Nilsen have emphasized the hurdles they had to jump through in order to coordinate a synchronized worldwide release. Having a game come out the same day in New York City as it did in Boise, Idaho, was already something that just didn’t happen. Trying to pull that off across multiple countries? Practically impossible. Until, that is, they made it happen. But that was only after the success of Sonic, not before. Even after the release of Sonic 2, most games didn’t have a specific release date with an instantaneous rollout: just check the list of games released in the United States over on Sega Retro to get a sense of that. By June 23rd, 1991, some people had already owned Sonic for nearly two weeks. That’s just how it was.
So for those lucky few that were able to get the game, what did they think of it? For your reading pleasure, the first review of Sonic the Hedgehog:
Well, I nabbed a copy yesterday (the local Electronics Boutique had sold 16 of ’em (and all the rest were reserved) by the time I picked mine up.
Here are my initial impressions. This certainly ain’t a review, having had it for only a day, just some thoughts.
First of all, what’s the game about? Well, you’re Sonic the Hedgehog, super varmint, trying to save your fellow critters, who have been turned into evil robots by the dastardly Dr. Robotnik. You run through 6 levels (each with 3 stages, called Acts), doing the ol’ Super Mario/Mickey Mouse jump-on-things-to-kill-’em routine. When you kill these robots, they turn into little animals (rabbits, squirrels, etc) that run merrily away. Sonic is one speedy dude; the longer you hold down your directional control, the faster Sonic goes (to a point…). At top speed, his little legs whirl around underneath his body cartoon-style. As you go through the levels, you have two objectives: to collect as many “rings” as you can, and to get through the level as quickly as possible. Rings are to Sonic what coins are to Mario. But there’s more incentive to get rings in Sonic. By default, you get no continues when you die. If you collect >100 rings on any given act, you earn yourself a continue. Also, if you get more than 50 rings on any act, you get to go to a secret bonus stage, involving a rotating maze. The maze is laden with rings and there’s a “Chaos Emerald” in the center of each one. You try to get to the Choas emerald before hitting one of the other exit areas; not an easy task. There are six different Chaos Emeralds that you’re supposed to collect by the time you finish the game. I’ve managed to get two…
So, how do I like _playing_ Sonic? Well, truth to tell, the first few games I played, I kept thinking “I like Mickey better, I like Mickey better.” The reason is that I was pretty overwhelmed by it all. Sonic moves a _lot_ faster than Mickey, plus there’s a lot more to discover on each act. There’s no one linear path through the levels, you have _many_ options. This is wonderful, of course, but the first time I played Mickey, I immediately just fell right into the game and happily played for a night. With Sonic, I had to adjust to what was going on for a few games, ’cause it’s so much more involved and fast than Mickey. But after a few games, I started thinking, “Man, Mickey’s a wimp.” The gameplay is fantastic! It’s a lot more challenging than Mickey is; Act three of the second Stage is about as hard as the dungeon scene in Mickey. Plus, Sonic utilizes two features that make the game a great run-and-jumper: first, as I mentioned above, there are route options galore, and _lots_ of secret areas/items to discover. There are also some in plain view that have no obvious access path. There are actually some points in the game where you have to think something through! For those who have the game already, getting to the extra man capsule on top of the second 360 loop is a good example. The second thing that sets Sonic apart is the ability to go _back_. That’s right, you don’t have to just go to the right. You can try out a route, decide you want to try another, and backtrack. It’s much more open-ended. The bosses (so far; I’ve killed the third one) are really wimps. No challenge there at all. I’m not complaining though; I’ve never been big on bosses anyway. I prefer that the levels themselves be challenging, and Sonic’s level fit that bill.
This game is Sega’s showpiece, and it shows. The graphics and music are phenomenal. As someone else here mentioned, the game even sings the word “Sega” when the logo appears at the beginning of the game. The music’s great, very catchy. The music on the third level has a great bass line…
Anyway, that’s about enough rambling for now, I guess. All this talk has me wanting to go play some Sonic!
For many, it was clear that Sonic the Hedgehog was an entirely new type of platformer, and for those willing to give it a whirl, they couldn’t stop playing. Early impressions continued to be positive, and those who asked what the big deal was were met with answers excitingly describing the game, and why it was fun.
Of course, not everyone was into the game. Which is completely fair, not everyone is going to like something, regardless of how blue and cool it is. It was inevitable that, with SEGA so prominently comparing Sonic to Mario, someone would eventually say “I prefer Mario.” Words that would begin so many schoolyard arguments over the next few years.
In the end, there was more positive than negative, reflected in the gaming press. Averaging out contemporary game scores, the original Sonic the Hedgehog would have had a Metacritic score of 90 if such a thing existed at the time. People played it, people loved it, and people wrote in to EGM to say as much.
It wasn’t long before Usenet was filled with posts from people asking for tips on how to beat certain levels, or collect all the Chaos Emeralds. Strategies on how best to maneuver Sonic, diving into the mechanics of the game, quickly came into being. It was new, exciting, and a must-own title. If anyone is curious, yes, there was someone complaining about Marble Zone even in 1991…but there was also love for Labyrinth Zone!
The conversation about Sonic the Hedgehog continued on, eventually turning to speculation over what a possible sequel would contain. After all, it only made sense SEGA would capitalize on the success, creating a series that would define the era just as the Super Mario Bros. games defined the previous generation. During the first few years of the character’s life, it didn’t matter what day Sonic the Hedgehog had been released. What mattered was that the game was out there, bringing joy and inspiring the imagination of an entire generation. So if you feel like celebrating today, or on the 23rd, or even July 26th when the game finally released in Japan, or all three, then go ahead. Because, hey. I’m sure Sonic himself isn’t all that fussed about his own birthday, anyway.